(Photo along the MoPac Trail, between Walton, Nebraska, and Eagle, Nebraska, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, January 30, 2012)
Readings for January 30, 2012:
Psalms 56, 57 (58) (Morning)
Psalm 64, 65 (Evening)
Genesis 19:1-17, (18-23), 24-29
When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Get up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or else you will be consumed in the punishment of the city.” But he lingered; so the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and left him outside the city. When they had brought them outside, they said, “Flee for your life; do not look back or stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, or else you will be consumed.” And Lot said to them, “Oh, no, my lords; your servant has found favor with you, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life; but I cannot flee to the hills, for fear the disaster will overtake me and I die. Look, that city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there—is it not a little one? —and my life will be saved!” He said to him, “Very well, I grant you this favor too, and will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken. Hurry, escape there, for I can do nothing until you arrive there.” Therefore the city was called Zoar. The sun had risen on the earth when Lot came to Zoar.
Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground.
But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.
Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord; and he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the Plain and saw the smoke of the land going up like the smoke of a furnace. So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the Plain, God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had settled.
--Genesis 19:15-29 (NRSV)
In the Sodom and Gomorrah story, Lot manages to eke out one last-minute deal with the angels--to spare the city of Zoar from impending destruction and allow him and his family to take refuge there. Of particular interest is the name of the town itself--Zoar--literally, in Hebrew, "insignificant." Out of the five cities on the plain of what is now Jordan, the most insignificant one was spared.
Those of us who grew up or live in small town America are pretty well acquainted with the meaning of "an insignificant town." In fact, we often brag in the most colorful phraseology we can think of to tell others how small our town is, such as, "My town's so small, we have the "Welcome to" and the "You are now leaving" signs on the same signpost." We call it "a wide spot in the road," or say the sum total of the town is a gas station and a tavern. My all time favorite is the one used by a friend of mine who grew up in a little town in the southeast Missouri bootheel--"My home town? Two stores, two whores, and a cotton gin."
Well, my guess is Zoar, in comparison to the other four cities, was about that speed--except the cotton gin hadn't been invented yet. Excepting, of course, the unfortunate demise of Lot's wife, the salvation of Lot's family was destined to be in an insignificant place.
Our human judgmental tendency is to always belittle the smaller of the two. People in St. Louis make fun of Kirksville, people in Kirksville make fun of Macon, and people in Macon make fun of people in Bevier. Most of us from small towns, when we hear the line in John 1:46 of "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" we are usually mentally plugging in the name of our small town.
However, as we study the Bible, we discover God makes fairly good use of insignificant places, right down to using an insignificant place for the birth of the Savior. By all accounts, Bethlehem was somewhere between a berg and a shtetl on the significance scale, and Nazareth wasn't much better. But as it turns out, in the upside down world of God's Economic Scale, bigger is almost never better.
Instead, God works mystery in the world of insignificance--a dazzling alchemy, indeed, and it calls us to look at the insignificant places in our lives with a new wonder and a new awe if we are willing to accept, as John Calvin called it, "a teachable spirit." From the Lot story we learn that too much longing for the big significant things in life will petrify us as surely as Lot's wife was stiffened into a pillar of salt, and our salvation rests in not just journeying to, but fleeing to the insignificant places.
Maybe it's best summed up by Arundhati Roy, in "The God of Small Things:" “Perhaps it's true that things can change in a day. That a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes. And that when they do, those few dozen hours, like the salvaged remains of a burned house---the charred clock, the singed photograph, the scorched furniture---must be resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for. Little events, ordinary things, smashed and reconstituted. Imbued with new meaning. Suddenly they become the bleached bones of a story.”
Where are the insignificant places where you've fled, that became the skeletal frame of who you find yourself becoming, as a fully-fleshed out child of God?